The American South has a rich history, but one that is also fraught with racial conflict, largely between white Americans and people of colour. For those individuals who grew up in the American South between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the modern day, much of life’s experience was determined not by the character of an individual, but rather by the colour of their skin.

Although racial identities played a major role in American life, there are those who lived through those times and come out on the other side with valuable information to pass on to future generations. Rather than preaching hate, individuals such as Joseph Mr. Cotton take their experiences and provide insight into the next generation. There’s an old saying that goes “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” With the insightful minds of people like Joseph Mr. Cotton, the world can embrace a brighter future.

From a Creole Breeding Ground

Joseph Miles Cotton was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, which is situated in the state’s central parishes in what was once the heart of its plantation country. Mr. Cotton’s mother was born in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana and comes from a Creole family. Mr. Cotton’s father was a mixed Creole man with Native American roots as well.

Mr. Cotton’s family arrived in Louisiana from Culpeper, Virginia when his grandfather came to the area around Alexandria. His mother is from a Creole family in Avoyelles Parish, which is situated south of Alexandria and north of Lafayette, another region steeped in Creole tradition. His father is from Chambers, Louisiana, which is across the river in Alexandria. His parents came from Catholic and Baptist backgrounds, respectively between his mother and father, and Mr. Cotton and his siblings were raised Catholic.

Throughout his life, Mr. Cotton has not strayed much from his roots in central and southern Louisiana. He married his wife, whose family is originally from New Iberia and Lafayette. Her family has French and Native American blood. He got his start in teaching in St. Martinville in 1965 at a school with many Creole and French-heritage children. He taught school and served as a guidance counsellor, and then advanced his career with work throughout the state’s school systems.

As a student, teacher, and member of the community, Mr. Cotton experienced one of the uglier sides of life in Louisiana during the mid-20th century. Segregation was a major institution of southern life at this time. His experiences bring with them unique insights that can benefit the world.

School in session – half of the students are not in school but out picking tobacco. Colored School. Photo: Lewis Wickes Hine, September 13, 1916.

Living through Segregation

The Civil War may have ended in 1865, but almost a century later the southern US still had a system of segregation in place that treated people of colour, particularly Black Americans, as second-class citizens. Mr. Cotton grew up in and around Alexandria, Louisiana, at a time when Black Americans were made to feel lucky just for the simple things they might have in life. He recalls life growing up in the following terms:

“Growing up in Alexandria in the segregated South in the late ‘40s and ’50s, it was a tough time for Black people. Okay, there were very few privileges that you had, because that is what you got from your ancestors. You made the best of the situation you found yourself in and you learned that if you were ever going to be able to do anything, even a second class citizenship role, it was going to have to be through education. So, they encouraged you and they pushed you to do those kinds of things. So, I know what being in a segregated situation is like.”

Every aspect of life at this time was tinged by the segregation and the colour of one’s skin. When Mr. Cotton left home to go to college, he went to what was then Grambling College (now Grambling State University). It wasn’t a matter of choosing the best school for him, not to discredit Grambling, but a matter of selecting from one of the four colleges or universities that existed in the state of Louisiana for people of colour.

Black Americans living in Louisiana in 1959, when Mr. Cotton left for college, had the choice between two public institutions: Grambling College and Southern University. If a family could afford a private school, there were two schools for Black college students. Both were located in New Orleans: Xavier University (a Catholic school) and Dillard University (a Methodist school). Segregation wasn’t reserved just for higher education, or even educational systems as a whole.

Segregation extended down to elementary schools. White children would attend one school, with that institution receiving the newest textbooks and offering a wider array of educational options. Black children went to separate schools, and were lucky to receive hand-me-down books in decent condition. They faced an educational system preparing them more for a life of work rather than one of achievement:

“But anyway, the thing about the Black schools, they were second class entities. Brand new textbooks, four! Most of the specialist fields were at the White schools, such as physics, chemistry, English, those things. You might have gotten first brand new level textbooks, like in industrial arts or something of that nature. It was almost like training for those in the Black school as opposed to education to help them to move forward.”

Segregation was simply a fact of life at this time. Mr. Cotton admits that you had to find ways to control temper and attitude in the face of a system that was inherently unfair and imbalanced. Mr. Cotton can recall some of the other ways in which segregation permeated throughout life in the South at this time:

“I remember walking the streets in Alexandria because nobody in the Black community, not too many of them in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, had cars at that time. So, you’d walk. You’d be on the sidewalk walking. Here comes, say, for example, a White man and his wife and two children. You had to get off the sidewalk for them to pass.”

African American school children posed with their teacher outside a segregated one-room school, in South Carolina. Ca. 1905

An Accomplished Career as a Teacher

Despite the system of segregation in place at the time, Mr. Cotton earned a college degree and would go on to enjoy a positive and engaging career as a school teacher and guidance counsellor for countless Louisiana school children. When he graduated from Grambling College on January 28, 1964, he had a secondary education degree with additional areas of study in English and History. He went on to student teach in St. Joseph, Louisiana.

All along, Mr. Cotton wanted to pursue a law degree, but as his Grambling advisor poignantly asked him, “You got any money?” With no money to pay for a law degree, Cotton taught before moving on to earn his teaching certificate in the state and landing a full-time job as a teacher. After 10 years of working in that role, he earned a master’s degree as a guidance counsellor. He followed that up with certifications as an administration supervisor, educational specialist, and worked for a time on a doctorate in developmental education, until Grambling College cut the program.

Segregation was pervasive in this stage of his life. He recalls that Black students graduating college with hopes of teaching were limited to roles in Black schools. When those jobs were not available there was no hope of working in the white schools, as a Black teacher. He can even recall later in life that although segregation had been stripped out of society as an institution, following the Civil Rights Movement (1965), it still existed in the shadows:

“Yeah. I never did get where I wanted. I went to work in Baton Rouge, after a while, six months, a year, two years, three years, people saw and realized who and what I was and what I could do. Every now and then, maybe somebody, White, would end up saying: “Joe, boy, I tell you, you know so much or you’re so good. If you were, and how did they say that, I can’t remember the exact words right now, but it was almost like: If you were from Baton Rouge, you could be a deputy superintendent. I would end up saying something like, “Hey. If I were White, I’d be superintendent!”

Federal employees “White Men’s Waiting Room,” at the Public Health Service Dispensary, in Washington, D.C. Race discrimination sign, “Colored Men’s Waiting Room,” appears at left. Photo ca.1920.

Framing Segregation in the Past and Offering a Message of Hope

Although the Civil Rights Movement in America started more than 50 years ago, there is still more work to be done. There is a widely held view that after the 1970s and wider implementation of desegregation, equal status was reached throughout the southern US. Mr. Cotton begs to differ:

“No. No. I don’t know if it’s an Anglo-Saxon European perspective, but it’s like our differences means a whole lot. As human beings, there are more similarities between and among us than there are differences. But it’s very strange that the differences, which are fewer, keep us farther apart than those similarities that bring us together. Now, you won’t find my philosophy or my expression in every Black that you talk to who’s been through that type of situation. You learn, and you deal with your own experiences. Your emotions are tied to that.”

Whether equal status has been reached or not is in the eyes of the beholder. Each person is bound to have their own opinion on the subject, which is influenced by their own experiences.

This doesn’t mean that negativity and hopelessness reign supreme. Each person has it in their power to shape how they approach life and tackle the world’s issues. Mr. Cotton offers the following simple message for younger generations as they continue the fight against segregation’s shadow:

“The first thing from me would be you got to have a principle upon which you live. For me, that would be religion, Christianity, Catholicism, that which I learned and was brought up with, which is a part of me now. I am less involved in my church than I was some years ago, but I’m getting on in life.”

Segregation, and the fight for continued desegregation and the achievement of equal status among all, does not have to define a person. It may present itself as a roadblock, but who a person is and what they can become is increasingly in the control of the individual. It is up to them to find that principle to rest their hand on, in pursuit of a better future.